Nick Van Der Kolk, The Art of Podcasting No. 10

On a cool spring afternoon, The Timbre‘s Eric McQuade reached Nick van der Kolk at his in-law’s Irish cottage where he was burning peat and searching for a clear Skype connection. The host and producer of the ever-eclectic and often intense Love + Radio is temporarily headquartered abroad where he was kind enough to take a break from the jaw-dropping views and talk to us. What followed was a conversation about jewel thieves, strip club owners, moonlighting reporters, Irish storytellers, and whether a great podcast could ever transcend its form. 

THE TIMBRE

You’re staying in northwest Ireland right now?

NICK VAN DER KOLK

Yeah. I’m in County Donegal, which is west of Northern Ireland. It’s one of three counties that are not a part of the north, but are still a part of the historic Province of Ulster.

THE TIMBRE

Oh, wow.

NICK VAN DER KOLK

It feels very tucked away here. It’s only connected to the rest of the Republic by a very thin stretch. I sort of feel that it’s a little more wild here. It’s not quite as much on the tourist track as a lot of the rest of the country is. Full of cliffs and everything.

THE TIMBRE

This sounds like such an authentic experience you’re having in your peat-filled Irish abode. I’m really jealous.

NICK VAN DER KOLK

<Laughs>. Yeah, I don’t know. I guess if you get married to an Irish woman that gives you the full, authentic experience.

THE TIMBRE

The Irish are so poetic. There seems to be such a history of storytelling that I really like. I worked at an Irish pub for a man from County Mayo and he was the greatest storyteller. I could listen to him tell stories all day.

NICK VAN DER KOLK

It’s an interesting juxtaposition. It’s kind of upside down in a lot of ways. The Moth started doing sessions in Dublin and my officemate is Julien Clancy, a guy who runs it locally. It was really interesting to see the differences between the Americans who got up and the Irish. Because it’s an American institution, there were a lot of Americans in the audience. I think a third of the storytellers or so were Americans. Certainly, you could tell who they were as soon as they got up on stage, you know? There was this air of practiced smugness.

THE TIMBRE

<Laughs>

NICK VAN DER KOLK

Whereas Irish people, even though there is a real culture here of banter, it’s not quite as self-absorbed. It’s much more self-deprecating than a lot of the Americans. The Americans I know, anyway. It was really striking. You could see it as soon as they got up on stage, even before they opened their mouths you could tell who was American, who was Irish.

THE TIMBRE

You went to Ireland for what reason?

NICK VAN DER KOLK

My wife is Irish and she teaches at VCU in Virginia and she got a semester off to work on a research leave. And the work that I do with Love + Radio and my various other freelance projects, I can do anywhere I have an internet connection. I was like, “Let’s do it!” It’s just temporary. I’m going to be back in the States this summer. There’s now going to be a fifth city I’ve lived in the last five years. I think.

THE TIMBRE

Wow. Is that because of her work or your work?

NICK VAN DER KOLK

A little bit of both. This is probably not very interesting, but I was working at Chicago Public Media in Chicago. And then I got a job at Snap Judgment, so I moved out to Oakland. And then she got the job in Richmond, so I moved out there last year. So it’s four. Slight exaggeration.

THE TIMBRE

Skipping back, when did radio come to you? What age was it something you aspired to do?

NICK VAN DER KOLK

That I aspired to do? Umm, probably not until college. I was definitely listening to public radio as long as I can remember. Even in pre-teen years I was listening to NPR and stuff like that. Probably did not make me the coolest kid.

And then I kind of caught the bug when I got involved with the college radio station, which was this five-watt AM transmitter. At the time when I got involved, it wasn’t even broadcasting online. I completely caught the bug. I wasn’t even producing that much in the way of programming. It was just kind of managing the station and I become obsessed with it.

I become obsessed with sort of breaking out of it. In the history of this station, as I’m sure is the case with most student-run college radio stations at small colleges, they become very active and then whoever is the main force behind it graduates and then it all kind of falls apart. So I become obsessed with trying to break out of that cycle to make it a thing that could actually exist.

By my last semester in college, I was spending more time on the radio station than I was on my senior project. Yeah, and that totally got me into broadcasting. That totally opened up this whole other world of more left field radio. WFMU. And Benjamen Walker’s–at the time I think–Radio Nightlight. Maybe he was doing Theory of Everything at that point. I can’t remember, but that sort of opened this whole thing of becoming obsessed with radio.

And that was a very longwinded answer, I’m sorry.

THE TIMBRE

No, it’s great. When you said you were interesting in making sure the radio station could continue on, what did you do to change that?

NICK VAN DER KOLK

One of the things we did is went about raising a bunch of money. We were an unlicensed station and it was this dream of ours to get an actual FM license. Through the school, we went about raising a certain amount of money that could be put in escrow, so that when there was another round of licensing available, they would have the money to actually pay for it.

I remember a few years ago I looked up who was the station manager and I was like, “Hey, just so you know, there are going to be some FM licenses going on the block.” And they were like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. We talked about it and we decided we didn’t really want to deal with bullshit FCC whatever.” <Laughs>

THE TIMBRE

<Laughs>

NICK VAN DER KOLK

I think the school ended up using that money for something else, which I honestly don’t really blame them for.

THE TIMBRE

After you left college radio, and you were inspired, where did you move next?

NICK VAN DER KOLK

I grew up in Boston. I had no idea what I wanted to do next, but I knew that I didn’t want to move back to Boston. And then I promptly got a job at the Public Radio Exchange in Cambridge. So I moved back to Boston. <Laughs>

I applied for an internship there straight out of college and that was my first real job. I felt very lucky that I went straight into that line of work almost immediately.

THE TIMBRE

What did the intern do?

NICK VAN DER KOLK

At PRX? I was an intern there for like a month and half basically, and then someone left. It was a right place at the right time situation. I ended up getting hired as basically an editorial assistant where I did stuff on the web page and featured various radio pieces on PRX. You know, establish relationships with different stations and things like that.

THE TIMBRE

What year was this?

NICK VAN DER KOLK

2005 to 2007. I think. Two or three years.

THE TIMBRE

You were there right around the time that podcasting became a thing, right?

NICK VAN DER KOLK

When do you define them as becoming a thing? <Laughs>

THE TIMBRE

That’s a good question. Selfishly, when I heard about them. That’s a pretty stupid answer.

NICK VAN DER KOLK

2007 was also when the iPhone was out.

THE TIMBRE

That’s right. When did it come into your worldview? That there’s a thing called podcasting that’s just radio packaged up and sent out for people to download?

NICK VAN DER KOLK

Oh, well, that came at the very start of 2005. I was doing a radio show. It was kind of my first time doing that kind of crafted radio show where basically I would interview my friends and just set it to music. Much more of a direct rip off of This American Life. About three episodes in, a friend of mine who has his finger on the pulse of these sorts of things was like, “Would you guys ever consider making your radio show a podcast?” We were like, “No, what’s that?” And he explained it to me. This was pre iTunes podcast directory. There was no kind of podcast publishing platforms available. If you wanted to update your feed, you had to go in with a text editor and put in all the tags manually.

I don’t think there were a ton of people listening to podcasts at that point, but very early on we got a couple hundred listeners, which, for us, was a huge deal. So then I graduated and retired that show. A few months later, while I was at PRX, I wanted something that was more of a creative outlet. And that’s when I started Love + Radio. 

THE TIMBRE

What is really interesting to me, but might bore you to tears, is the distinction between podcasts and radio.

NICK VAN DER KOLK

<Laughs> Uh-huh.

THE TIMBRE

The reason it’s interesting to me is this. As someone who’s not coming to podcasts with a radio background, I wonder if radio doesn’t mean something different to people that are radio listeners than to people that are in radio. What I mean is: If you would have said to me, “What is radio?” I would have thought, ‘Talk show personalities.’ I’m talking about eight or nine years ago.

NICK VAN DER KOLK

Right.

THE TIMBRE

What is your distinction between podcasting and radio?

NICK VAN DER KOLK

It’s interesting because obviously you’re using a pretty narrow definition of it. Most radio is not like that. Most radio is music. It’s right wing talk radio. Any number of things. So, people usually call it public radio, but that feels like total bullshit to me as well because it’s not really public. Radiotopia’s business model is completely different from NPR’s or any other public radio entity. Even what are considered public radio entities, they get a tiny amount of public funding. So, I don’t know. There has to be another word. Maybe The Timbre can invent one.

THE TIMBRE

We’ll fail miserably if we try that. There’s a movement that the word podcast is going to die. I’m starting to formulate this idea that people really don’t like the term “podcast” and it’s interesting to me because language has a way of sweeping over all of us. It’s bigger than we are. It’s really hard to place bets on what words will and won’t enter the vernacular.

NICK VAN DER KOLK

For me, having been there in the early days, podcasts always had a real taint to it. It wasn’t only really until a couple years ago where I would meet attractive, young people who use that word. And I was like, ‘Oh.’ It was not something that I ever wanted to be a part of. There were all these weird podcast conventions in those early days. I’m sure they’re still around. It was so much more of an emphasis on the platform than the content itself.

THE TIMBRE

As you were moonlighting, did you feel like you’re some sort of bionic man? Did you feel like you had recording devices attached to you at all times?

NICK VAN DER KOLK

In those early days, I recorded constantly and I always had a recorder on me. I would always be cornering people in the bathroom. I think you can actually hear that in few of the early episodes. It was just me cornering people in bathrooms and having them tell their stories. <Laughs>

Now, not so much.

THE TIMBRE

So what brought you to the situation where you can work on Love + Radio full time?

NICK VAN DER KOLK

I got a grant just a couple months after I started working at Snap Judgment. I got this grant and basically sat on it. Didn’t use it because I wasn’t going to up and quit my job after working there for two months. It’s a real testament that it’s sometimes important to jump without having the whole plan because I knew from talking with Roman that there was this idea of a podcast collective and it might get funding and blah, blah, blah. But I hadn’t really heard anything from it and it was dragging on. Eventually, I was like, “Screw it. I’m just going to work off these grant savings. My wife just got a job in Virginia. It’s as good an excuse as any.”

A few days later I got a call from Roman, who says, “Oh, the reason I didn’t tell you they were going forward on this whole Radiotopia thing is because I thought you were just working at Snap and you were going to be happy to just be doing that. But now that you quit, we want to get you in on the ground floor. So, why don’t you join up now?” That would not have happened would I not have quit first.

THE TIMBRE

On a given episode of Love + Radio, how many people are involved? How involved are you if it’s not your story?

NICK VAN DER KOLK

It again really depends. The way I like to think of my role within Love + Radio is akin to a film director. I’m involved in a lot of the interviews. I’m involved in a lot of the editing. I’m also involved in a lot of the sound design as well, although Brendan does most of that. And then, of course, collaboration with outside producers has always been an important part of the show. There’s a lot of blurring of the lines between our different roles. There’s not really any one that I like doing. I like that there’s thing that exists out there that sounds good, if that makes sense.

THE TIMBRE

Totally.

NICK VAN DER KOLK

Love + Radio is actually something that I started because I wanted to listen to a show like it. If that makes sense. Way down the line–if we get a bigger staff–I’m totally happy being in the role of just decision making, you know.

THE TIMBRE

I imagine you’re probably doing some recording over there. In your own experience, what’s it been like interviewing the Irish?

NICK VAN DER KOLK

Honestly, I have been kind of striking out a bit in terms of finding stories here. I haven’t also been looking exceptionally hard, but I think in general it’s been a little bit trickier. There have been a couple of people that were kind of on my target list and they both turned me down. I’m sure I’ll get a couple in the can, but most stories that we work on, you know, are months out. By the the time we’re to actually present something that had an Irish voice, I’d probably be gone at that point.

THE TIMBRE

Wait. What do you mean? You basically plan an episode months in advance, is that what you’re saying? So you know three months from now what’s going to be coming out?

NICK VAN DER KOLK

Yeah. It really varies. Most recently we had a huge shit show of a piece that I’d been working on for over a year off and on. We had to kill it like the week before we were going to put it out. And so we had to scramble. Usually, we work on pieces for at least a couple of months, you know?

THE TIMBRE

Why did you have to kill that particular story?

NICK VAN DER KOLK

I don’t know if I can really go into that one right now, but I was concerned for the safety of one of my subjects. I’ll leave it at that.

THE TIMBRE

Understood.

Now you said these two subjects there in Ireland turned you down. Is that a common experience for you when you reach out to people considering the types of folks you’re interviewing?

NICK VAN DER KOLK

Usually I don’t hear from people. People rarely say no. Much more common that people will say yes or just won’t respond at all. Or they’ll say yes and I have to call them fifteen, twenty times to schedule an interview.

THE TIMBRE

<Laughs>

NICK VAN DER KOLK

That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but there are a lot of pieces that I stop pursuing. I get sick of trying to nail down the person. There’s one story that I was working on with a friend of mine who agreed to do the interview. My friend was nearby and by near I mean was an hour and half drive away. She went out to meet with her and she refused to be recorded but wanted to still have a conversation. So they ended up talking for about two hours, unrecorded. And then she’s like, “Next time we meet up, then you can record me.” And then she drove out a second time and she never showed up. At that point I was, ‘I don’t pay people enough to hound people like that.’

This was an old, retired jewel-thief woman that I was trying to interview.

THE TIMBRE

Oh my god. Retired jewel thief might be the story of my life when I hear that.

NICK VAN DER KOLK

<Laughs> There was nothing sexy about the story. She would walk into jewelry shops and try them on and then just walk out. <Laughs> There was no repelling down from the ceilings or anything like that.

THE TIMBRE

Isn’t it always like that? I read a story by a guy online who was a hacker and he said, “Most of the time we get passwords from people by social engineering.” He would get a directory from IBM and he would just call every single number in it and say, “I’m from the help desk. I’m calling because you had a problem?”

NICK VAN DER KOLK

Right.

THE TIMBRE

He said 98% of the people go, “I didn’t call the help desk.” And they go, “Oh, I’m sorry. Have a good day.” And they wait for the one person who said, “Oh, yes. I have a problem.” And then you go, “Can you give me your password please and I’ll log into your account?”

And it’s so unsexy, but that’s the reality of it.

NICK VAN DER KOLK

Yeah, totally. That guy, Tom Justice, who Katie Mingle interviewed, he was a bank robber and just walked in and had a bank note that just said, “Give me your money.” They’re not going to risk their lives not knowing what he is. He’s totally unarmed. He would just walk in after the money and then leave. He did that 26 times.

THE TIMBRE

The simplest solution is sometimes the best. I’ve been obsessed with bank robbers. The interesting thing for me about bank robbers is that it’s one of the few criminal professions–or maybe if you steal cars–where it’s somehow romantic. So many crimes are violent, but going in, slipping a note, and stealing money from a bank to me is somehow noble. There is some kind of nobility to it, you know?

NICK VAN DER KOLK

I feel that way more about jewel thieves, actually. More than anything else. At least banks are funding local businesses or whatever. But jewels? Why are jewels even valuable, man? <Laughs>

THE TIMBRE

Absolutely.

You were talking about this particular episode that got killed. And I wonder, is there a fear that somebody, if they really applied themselves, could find out who a person is?

NICK VAN DER KOLK

Yeah. We try to talk every step that we can in those sorts of situations. In general, people being anonymous is more for personal reasons. Typically, we’re not dealing with stuff where people could get in legal hot water by not being anonymous.

THE TIMBRE

As far as finding stories–the stories you work on–are you inspired by something you read in the newspaper? Something online? Is it a friend tells you something? How do you come across stories?

NICK VAN DER KOLK

That’s the number one question that I get asked and I should have a better answer for it at this point. <Laughs> But I really don’t. There’s no magic bullet. We get pitched a lot of stuff. Especially as the show’s become more popular, we have relied a lot more on the outside producers to find stuff. So that’s definitely a big one.

But it can really be anything from something I’ve read in the news to a friend of a friend. Sometimes it’s very serendipitous. The businesswoman episode was completely random and I was there with the subject at the time. And she was like, “I’ve only told my two best friends this secret.” And I was like, “Let me get my recorder.” <Laughs> I just happened to have my recorder on me at that time.

It’s really all over the place. I like stories that reached their media climax a couple decades ago I guess. That’s one good place to find stuff because I want to go for stuff that’s a little more timeless. I don’t want to chase after stories and be the first one. I’m so not interested in breaking stories or anything like that.

THE TIMBRE

When you talk about having an episode lined up months in advance, I know that doesn’t mean that it’s done months in advance. I hear from radio folks that things tend to go to the final minute. Are you working up to the last hour before these things go up?

NICK VAN DER KOLK

Yes, and I wish we were better about that.  <Laughs>

THE TIMBRE

I think you’re in good company.

NICK VAN DER KOLK

There are changes that are being made an hour before things get posted, you know. And that’s totally because I really cut my teeth in podcasts. It’s a real result of that. The deadlines are not quite as hard as they are for regular broadcasts. So it’s always just really tempting to go, ‘Oh, you know. We could make this a lot better if we just had like two more hours.’

THE TIMBRE

We just had an interview with Jeff Emtman and he said that they’ve rewritten endings twenty-four hours before it’s about to go up. Completely rewritten endings. That is a legacy from radio, right?

NICK VAN DER KOLK

There’s way less moving parts in radio. So if you want to make last minute changes, you can relatively easily. Just jump in and edit things around. One thing we’re actively talking about now is actually going more towards a TV based model–instead of doing this IV drip of monthly episodes–to bank a whole bunch and then release them. If not simultaneously, then in a chunk. I think a show like Love + Radio might lend itself more towards that kind of model.

THE TIMBRE

Do you think podcasts are going towards that level of appreciation? Do you think that they will be as loved as television shows? We can release them as seasons and they will become as big as, say, a cult cable program?

NICK VAN DER KOLK

I don’t know what the upper limit is. I imagine the number of radio people is reflective of what the upper limit is of what podcasting could achieve, right? I don’t think podcasts are going to eat into TV much if at all. That’s what I would suspect, but who knows?

I think the audience members will always be relatively small compared to TV, anyway. Maybe I’ll be wrong. For me, the audience has always been a means to another end. It’s probably hampered the development of my show to some degree. I’ve never really cared that much about having listeners and being popular. I make that show for myself. I make that show for my closest friends. I totally appreciate that there are people out there listening and appreciating it, but I’m not really making it for them.

THE TIMBRE

I guess that’s kind of the great thing about the medium. You know, it’s hard to get films made about subjects. And it’s hard to get things on television because the means of distribution for films and television are so guarded. It’s old guard. You can release your podcast without somebody editing you and that’s pretty spectacular when you’re trying to create something, right?

NICK VAN DER KOLK

Yeah, and it’s great for someone like me where I’m interested in a lot of stuff where I wouldn’t even know how to pitch it. I remember when I did the interview with Jay Thunderbolt. If I was working with an editor, they would think I was nuts. You know what I mean? There’s this guy who runs a strip club out of his house in Detroit and he seems like quite a character. He also has these letters from major Republican Congressman thanking him for his service to the public. Let’s go check him out! I don’t know what editor in their right mind would say yes to that in that situation.

Maybe if I were better at articulating that kind of stuff, I would have gone that route. For me, so much of the work that I do is an intuitive process that to have to be constantly pitching someone else–I’m too lazy for that.

THE TIMBRE

In that episode, Jay is such a force of nature when he’s on the air. That voice. There’s something in his voice. He fills up that space when he starts talking.

NICK VAN DER KOLK

Yeah.

THE TIMBRE

Your voice on Love + Radio affects me in a really good way. I know it’s very deliberate that you’re including your voice in there. Why is that decision made?

NICK VAN DER KOLK

As much as I like radio, I don’t think radio is that great. <Laughs> There is so much more room for improvement and creativity. It’s a pretty conservative medium. You guys had an article about it. I’m blanking on his name.

THE TIMBRE

Josh Richmond. Yeah.

NICK VAN DER KOLK

Josh Richmond. I totally agree with 99% of what he wrote in that piece.

I’ve always suspected that if Love + Radio were a TV show or a film project or something else, I think people would still get something out of it, but I don’t think it would be the same. If we get really, really great feedback on the show, I’m very super appreciative of it. But I’ve always wondered, ‘It’s a podcast. It’s good for a podcast.’ You know?

THE TIMBRE

There you are being self-deprecating. <Laughs>

NICK VAN DER KOLK

<Laughs> Except I’m being self-deprecating while taking everyone else down with me.

THE TIMBRE

<Laughs> That’s true. That’s true.

NICK VAN DER KOLK

So I’m managing to be self-deprecating and piss everyone off.

THE TIMBRE

That’s a good point.

NICK VAN DER KOLK

There’s a lot of radio that inspired me, but a lot of what’s inspired me in Love + Radio is not in radio at all, you know. It’s in some other mediums. A big piece of that is that I really love the aesthetic in documentary film–or really any film honestly–where you are constantly aware of the presence of the director. Even if they’re not in front of the camera.

THE TIMBRE

Right. Cinéma vérité?

NICK VAN DER KOLK

When they are in front of the camera, I really don’t care for that at all, usually. But I love Grey Gardens or Errol Morris. That sense that there’s this other presence. It’s a little bit ghostly. There’s this guiding hand and so that’s an aesthetic that’s really informed the show. That’s why I like including the questions, even if the questions aren’t necessary to understanding the context of the person. I want there to be this just slight, little sense of like, “Oh, this isn’t a monologue. We’re here. We’re witnessing this.”

That’s something that I try to play around with a lot. Where’s that line where you actually feel that intimacy with the subject? As opposed to how it’s usually done in radio, which is this idea that radio is a didactic medium where people need to be told how they’re supposed to feel. You need to have someone who is going to be the filter who kind of explains why this stuff is important. And that can work in certain contexts, but I just get a little bored with it.

 

 

Author Description

Eric McQuade is co-founder of The Timbre and a former-programmer-turned-writer. He has lived in D.C., Texas, North Carolina, Minnesota, New Jersey, Colorado, Argentina, Cayman Islands, and the length of the Appalachian Trail. Right now he hangs his hat in Memphis, TN.

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